NEW YORK (AP) — Mary Jane Schriner is puzzled.
She has nearly two dozen letters from college-age George Steinbrenner detailing his still-forming personality, filled with charm and sweetness and hope, and the New York Yankees are blocking her from publishing them in a book.
“He just was very, very nice. I can’t think of a mean thing to say about him,” she told The Associated Press by phone. “He just couldn’t have been nicer. He was over at our house all the time. That said, in the letters, in one of them, he apologized for being such a pest and thought my parents might get sick of seeing him.”
Overall, there is a tone and loneliness and perhaps puppy love in the letters. They were provided to the AP by the woman and her son after one was published in The New York Times, and the newspaper reported that the Yankees had refused permission to let her use them to be published in a collection.
Schriner said she had provided copies of the letters to the baseball Hall of Fame.
A series of 19 letters Steinbrenner wrote from 1949-51 to Mary Jane Elster — her maiden name — reveal many of the traits the baseball world grew to know during his tumultuous reign as Yankees owner from 1973 until his death in July at age 80.
Years later, she became puzzled when she followed George Steinbrenner’s blustery public persona. She couldn’t reconcile the imperious pronouncements of the New York Yankees owner with the gushing and somewhat awkward young man from their Ohio town decades earlier.
“I’d see on the news he did this, that or whatever, and it wasn’t the person I knew. It was like a different person,” she said.
Back then, there were hints of the personality that would come to dominate baseball for more than three decades: charming, sarcastic, boastful, demanding.
Even when he was in college, Steinbrenner was all that.
Yet, there also is an emotional, personal side that Steinbrenner rarely showed.
That what makes the letters more remarkable.
“They’re very human,” she said.
Schriner has written about Steinbrenner on her blog. She remembers that after they both got married, she’d come across Steinbrenner in a store or a parking lot in their hometown.
Now 77 and her vision failing, Schriner said she no longer can read the letters herself and that she had one of her daughters read them to her.
Steinbrenner calls their hometown of Bay Village, a Cleveland suburb, the “Hicksville town we live in.” He writes of apprehension at punting in Williams College’s 1950 games at Princeton, saying “I’m afraid shades of Custer’s last stand will be re-enacted at Palmer Stadium.” Williams would lose 66-0.
He worries that his writing skills got rusty during the summer as he prepared a sports column for The Williams Record. He hopes to compete in the 1952 U.S. Olympic track and field trials. When invited to run the 440-yard hurdles at the Penn Relays, he said of his always demanding father: “The old man is tickled ‘pink.'”
He proudly tells her about an ROTC tour of a military base, is pleased “the old Indians are certainly making a mess of the old pennant race” after fading from contention, informs her than he has only three 8 a.m. classes and intends to drop a calculus course in favor of one on navigation of surface vessels. He repeatedly is worried that she is lonely as she settles in at college.
Always a college football fan, Steinbrenner let’s her know “the Fighting Irish sure took a nose dive this year.” A horse fan, too, he tells her he went to see trotters race at Saratoga, and reminds her of a tip on Hill Prince: “I guess you’ll admit now that I can pick horses, too.”
And he was filled with the social concerns of college kids. Stressed during pledge week at his fraternity and the parties, he writes: “Every house imports groups of feminine pulchritude from Bennington or Smith. Naturally, it’s a race with every house trying to line up the best herd — what a bunch of beasts.”
At times, it seems Steinbrenner had a crush on her.
“You seem a little more indifferent to me than the other 35,000,000 American women. … Only kiddin — sport.”
In February 1951, he writes to her that after a track meet at Madison Square Garden, he had a date with Miss Rheingold 1951 but got tired, went back to the Williams Club and was in bed by midnight. And he tells her of going to a place called Mike’s for hot chocolate that has “the cutest little ole waitresses ever but you have to be a campus big shot before they give you a tumble — so all I ever get is a nice big cup of cocoa.”
“He said in one letter that he had gone out with Miss Rheingold, and he said that he liked me better,” Schriner said. “I think that was a lie. I don’t know if that was true or not. But I mean the letters were very, very simple. It shows he had insecurities, just like all of us. He was just coming of age.”
Known for lavish spending as Yankees owner, Steinbrenner didn’t dole out the big bucks then.
In December 1950 he wrote in pencil and said he couldn’t afford a pen, and his roommates wouldn’t let him borrow theirs until he spent $1 for a new one.
He writes that they’ll have to wait until they return home for Thanksgiving to talk, presumably because using the telephone was too expensive.
“2.00 for 3 minutes is a little out of my financial reach,” he wrote.
He puts himself down, calling himself “the dumbest guy around.”
“If you’d marry me — think of all the little ‘idiots’ we could raise,” he wrote — with “we” underlined.”
When he doesn’t hear from her with the desired frequency, he writes in May 1950 a sentence at odds with the Steinbrenner the public came to know: “I can’t stand this any longer. … My ego has not only been deflated, but it has ceased to exist.”
Michael Schriner, her son, doesn’t understand why Lonn Trost, the team’s chief operating officer, denied permission for publication. Under U.S. copyright law, because they are Steinbrenner’s letters, the family’s consent is needed.
“The week when they unveiled George’s statue was when he was supposed to get back to us,” he said. “She wanted the kids to see the letters. Instead, he just filed a legal you-can’t-do this letter. It caught everybody off guard. She thought if they said no, they should give a good reason.”
Trost would not discuss the matter with the AP, and team spokesman Alice McGillion said in an email it was a “sensitivity issue.”
“These are personal letters from George,” McGillion said. “These are not letters than we want published.”
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.